Krystii Melaine finds inspiration in the Native cultures of the American West
By Elizabeth L. Delaney
This story was featured in the September 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art September 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
Some might find it unusual that a native Australian would focus her fine-art career largely on the study and depiction of the American West and its cultures. However, Krystii Melaine uses her art not only as a way to preserve and revere but also as a vehicle to make connections—between past and present, artist and subject, painting and viewer.
Growing up in Australia, Melaine was exposed to an abundance of scenes and stories from the American West—on television, in movies, and in books. Such imagery resonated with her, and she spent her youth fascinated by the lives and cultures of Native Americans, cowboys, pioneers, and the animals that lived alongside them. Not surprisingly, these themes became catalysts for her creative expression. Cowboys working the range, horses galloping across the plains, and iconic wildlife in native habitats all have appeared in Melaine’s body of work over the years. Her naturalistic renderings of such scenes offer a visual connection to a world that is far removed from, if not exotic for, most people living in modern society.
Lately, Melaine’s primary focus has turned to historical connections, as she continues to surround herself in the traditions and cultures of the many Native American peoples of the Plains region, including the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Lakota, and Nez Perce, among others. She now resides in Spokane, WA, where she relocated to live amid the history that resonated so deeply with her as a child. What was once a world available to her only through books and television is now her home.
Melaine was born in Bairnsdale, Victoria, where she spent much of her time as a child intently observing the people and animals around her. Her interest in art emerged very early; in fact, she knew by the age of 4 that she wanted to be an artist. She won her first competition when she was only 7 and went on to land her first commissioned work at 14.
She later attended university in Australia, where she studied painting, drawing, and graphic design. Soon after she left school, she established her own fashion-design firm, which she soon grew into one of the largest bridal and evening-wear companies in the country. Interestingly, this professional path also allowed her to observe and connect with people on a deeper level, both psycho-logically and physically, as she studied the structure of clothing and how it relates to the human form. These experiences all served to inform the history-based figurative paintings she would ultimately focus on in her art.
Melaine eventually ended her career in fashion and turned back to painting, studying traditional tonal realism under Australian artist Graham Moore. Her interest in the American West resurfaced when she visited the United States in 1998, and from that point on it has directed her creative vision—so much so that she and her husband, author and historian Michael K. Cecil, moved to Washington in 2010. Today, her work frequently appears in invitational exhibitions, among them Masters of the American West at the Autry Museum of the American West, Cowgirl Up! at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and Western Visions at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. She is a master signature member of the American Women Artists and a member of the Portrait Society of America.
Melaine’s portraits of Native American figures are based on life in the 1800s and are fueled by nearly a century of historical records documenting cultural practices and daily life. In each portrait, she seeks to construct a complete picture, encompassing all the cultural facets and the ways they intertwine. She explains, “One of the things I find so fascinating about painting Native Americans is that their clothing and equipment were personal artistic expressions of their beliefs, stories, achievements, and cultural traditions.”
Melaine performs exhaustive research before embarking on a painting, to re-create the historic details as precisely as possible as well as to maintain contextual authenticity. “I want to be respectful of the culture,” she explains. “The research is very important.” Moving beyond the standard books, photographs, and museum artifacts to gather information, she has recently begun making her own reproductions of Native American clothing and accessories to get hands-on experience with beading and embroidery. She studies Native American languages as well, often naming her pieces in the language of the subject depicted. “It’s a fascinating part of my research,” she says of her linguistic studies. “I hope it will bring more awareness of the many very complex languages that are native to this country.”
She feels this immersion into an otherwise foreign culture gives her greater insight and empathy, which she can then convey in her paintings. “You can’t really understand another culture unless you know how they think,” she says. To that end, Melaine attempts to physically re-create the past, setting the scene for each portrait by filling it with replicas of historical items and dressing her models in period clothing—occasionally in pieces she herself has constructed.
Melaine employs a very traditional process and medium in her work. Applying oil paint to linen panel, she draws on her classical training to create richly hued images that evoke a lifelike energy and sense of psychic depth. True to her meticulous nature, she carefully plans each composition before putting brush to surface. Then Melaine paints slowly and purposefully. She prefers to paint alla prima, finishing one section of the composition before she moves on to the next. As a result, she typically requires only one layer of paint to achieve the tone and luminosity she seeks. “I deliberately try to leave visible brush strokes,” says Melaine of her application process. “I want you to be able to see the hand of the artist and the process of how it was made when you get close to it. How the paint is applied is really important to me, as is the quality of the pigment and the brush strokes.”
Though Melaine’s portraits of Native American culture are inspired by 19th-century life, aesthetically they have a contemporary flair. She likes to paint her subjects up close and without complicated backgrounds, making the focus the identity or essence of the figure. Many compositions have limited backgrounds or simply abstracted areas of color surrounding the subject. “I want to paint at a size where you can see this person as an individual,” she explains. “The background has become a visual support to the subject, and in many cases lets me play with abstract concepts.”
Such an approach also produces an interesting amalgamation of Melaine’s traditional European techniques with non-European subjects. This progressive take on classical portraiture connects cultures and traditions past and present. To push the idea further, Melaine is currently exploring techniques that allow her to incorporate subtle abstraction into her work, such as foreground figures dissolving into a more ambiguous background. This way, the artist can imply what lies beneath the picture plane and invite viewers to look more deeply into the painting. “What you see isn’t always all that’s there,” she explains, noting that she paints what she feels in addition to what she sees—again hoping to convey that sense of emotion and intrigue outside the painting.
She is also examining the visual impact of life-size portraiture, which she feels allows viewers to connect more fully with the subjects. “I want to give viewers that real-life connection to the paintings, as if they are standing in the room with that person,” says the artist. Some of these latest portraits are very closely cropped as well, focusing on the upper two-thirds of the body. Here, the subjects fill the entire canvas, in effect becoming foreground and background simultaneously. “The subject itself is the entire landscape of the painting,” Melaine says. This nod to a nonlinear composition style reflects her interest in adding more abstract qualities to her work as she continues to penetrate viewer space to form those visual and emotional connections.
Melaine says that the most satisfying part of her work is the process, from the initial concept to the practical research and, finally, the act of painting. Her task is complete only when all the components dovetail effortlessly. “I have an internal drive to paint,” she says. “The way I get that out is to put it on canvas. Once it’s outside of me, it takes on its own life. I hope the viewer can relate to the person as an individual, make up their own stories, do their own research. Ultimately, if it makes people happy to look at, then I’m happy. I think art should make people happy.”
Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY, and Park City, UT; Mountain Trails Galleries, Sedona, AZ; Broadmoor Galleries, Colorado Springs, CO; Coeur d’Alene Galleries, Coeur d’Alene, ID; Going to the Sun Gallery, Whitefish, MT; Four Corners Gallery at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, Tucson, AZ; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ; Decoys & Wildlife Gallery, Frenchtown, NJ.
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